Men always praise (but not always reasonably) the ancient times and find fault with the present; and they are such partisans of things past, that they celebrate not only that age which has been recalled to their memory by known writers, but those also (being now old) which they remember having seen in their youth. And when this opinion of theirs is false (as it is most of the times) I am persuaded the reasons by which they are led to such deception are various. And the first I believe is that the whole truth which would bring out the infamy of those times, and they amplify and magnify those others that could bring forth their glory. Moreover, the greater number of writers so obey the fortune of the winners that, in order to make their victories glorious, they not only exaggerate that which is gotten by their own virtu, but they also exaggerate the actions of the enemies; so that whoever afterwards is born in either of the two provinces, both the victorious and the defeated ones, has cause to marvel at those men and times, and is forced summarily to praise and love them. In addition to this, men hating things either from fear or envy, these two reasons for hating past events come to be extinguished, as they are not able to offend or give cause for envy of them. But the contrary happens with those things that are (presently) in operation and are seen, which because you have a complete knowledge of them as they are not in any way hidden from you; and knowing the good together with the many other things which are displeasing to you, you are constrained to judge the present more inferior than the past, although in truth the present might merit much more of that glory and fame; I do not discuss matters pertaining to the arts, which shine so much by themselves, which time cannot take away or add a little more glory which they merit by themselves; but I speak of those matters pertinent to the lives and customs of men, of which such clear evidences are not seen.This is always the problem with being a laudator temporis acti. On the one hand, you are perpetually driven to hold up the past as an exemplar, an unbreakable and effectively flawless mirror for the inadequacies of the present; on the other, you cannot escape the aching feeling that history's real truth is "it has always been thus," and your romantic ideal is just an illusion produced by the very present that you so desperately want to escape. You're caught in a trap: you want to live in the past, but the past is only beautiful to you because you are a man of your time. Some laudatores simply pretend to ignore the problem--but this only makes them worthy of mockery.
...I do not know, therefore, whether I merit to be numbered among those who deceive themselves, if in these Discourses of mine I shall laud too much the times of the ancient Romans and censure ours. And truly, if the virtu that then reigned and the vice that now reigns should not be as clear as the Sun, I would be more restrained in talking, being apprehensive of falling into that deception of which I accuse others. But the matter being so manifest that everyone sees it, I shall be bold in saying openly that which I learned of those times and these, so that the minds of the young men who may read my writings can avoid the latter evils and imitate the virtu of the former, whenever fortune should give them the opportunity.
- Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy, Book Two
Machiavelli takes a different approach. Old men and historians, he says, are particularly bad at depicting the past as it really was, and we risk misrepresenting the present if we believe them. But! The present is so spectacularly bad now that I am justified in adopting the pose of the laudator. This form of special pleading looks especially disingenuous here because all its wiring is hanging out: he has explicitly granted the rule but begs transparently for an exemption. He makes it ever so easy for us to dismiss him. But what if we take the Straussian view, that no great philosopher would ever say anything so obviously stupid without some ulterior motive? Could we rescue Machiavelli from himself?
Machiavelli's notion of history is more complex than simply "past" and "present." To paraphrase this classic philosophy paper, recently linked on Metafilter, there's both an A and a B series here. In other words, the historian occupies a position in the present, looking back at the past--but in Machiavelli's view, he also occupies a position in a objective historical cycle of ascent and decline, looking back upon a point in another historical cycle. On that basis, he justifies his position by arguing that if we are in a state of decline, it is worthwhile for us to look back and draw lessons from a state of ascent. This argument fails for two reasons. First, the problem of figuring out whether or not we are in a state of decline is simply the same problem as before, but deferred to another level. Second--and I'd say this is more interesting--the presupposition of an objective cycle means that we can't draw meaningful lessons from the past: decline, once begun, is irreversible.
I think it would have been possible for Machiavelli to vindicate himself in another, more honest, way. The problem with the present is not the fact that it's a state of decline--it's that the political processes that make up Machiavelli's vision of history have yet not been fully actualized. The present is messy: it's in a state of becoming. The past, on the other hand, is clear-cut. The consequences of every decision, the trajectories of political revolution (in the old sense), the personal conflicts and alliances, have already been completely resolved. Machiavelli is not much of a laudator at all; what he wants are timeless laws. It's not for nothing that he says, a bit earlier:
It is easily recognized by those who consider present and ancient affairs that the same desires and passions exist in all Cities and people, and that they always existed. So that to whoever with diligence examines past events, it is an easy thing to foresee the future in any Republic, and to apply those remedies which had been used by the ancients, or, not finding any of those used, to think of new ones from the similarity of events. But as these considerations are neglected or not understood by those who govern, it follows that the same troubles will exist in every time.Notice how he makes a gesture of restoring agency to us: if we would only look at the ancients, we could overcome the eternal problems. But in fact the problems are eternal precisely because we can never look at the ancients.
No, he's only pretending to care about whether people take his advice. He's thirsting for the omniscience of the Greek who goes to Delphi: a sardonic smile on his face, Machiavelli stands athwart history and remains silent, secure in the knowledge that history is a regular and predictable process. The ancients would have been nothing to him if they did not, in their turn, decline. Those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it; those who know history are condemned to repeat it as well--but with the satisfaction of knowing how it ends.